There is a downright hysteria among many GOP pundits regarding the evils of “socialism” which according to some means any government program or regulation. To some Americans, the only true America is a country in which everything is privatized, corporations are reverred more than governments (and largely allowed to self-regulate through the theoretical unseen hand of markets *insert Kathryn Hahn wink here*), and so on. Yet, this argument really doesn’t make any sense to people living outside the US and doesn’t get nearly as far in the public discourse. Other countries see their tax money as paying for community benefits: roads, parks, fire departments, police force, schools (including universities), unemployment, and national healthcare. They can’t imagine wanting to be in a society in which these things don’t exist, and they understand that taxes pay for them. The better our communities, the more amenities for all, the better our government supports and protects us all, the better the country will do. That’s the line of thinking in other countries, but not always an argument that is viewed positively here.

I was recently listening to an Ezra Klein podcast called “The Cost All Americans Pay for Racism.” He interviews Heather McGee who wrote The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. She started out by talking about a huge project in the US during the 1920s through the 1940s to create large, opulent resort-style public swimming pools in various cities. There were over 2000 of these public swimming spaces created. However, when black people showed up, expecting to be admitted to these public spaces, they were denied entrance, even though their tax dollars had helped to pay for them. Rather than admit black people, some cities sold the pools to private entities for a dollar so that the private entity wouldn’t have to admit black people (as a government-owned property would). Some of the cities literally just drained the swimming pools and shut them down, destroying them by filling them with concrete or dirt, instead of allowing black people to enjoy them. Instead of public swimming pools that were supposed to bring communities together, the new trend became privately run swimming clubs or personally owned swimming pools in people’s own yards. Of course, black people were usually barred from any path to enough wealth to have their own swimming pool, and a private club wasn’t obligated to allow them to join. Privatization quickly became the most effective way to enforce segregation. Some of these public pools were still being shut down as late as the 1960s, when it was becoming too unpopular and confrontational to continue openly to bar black people from swimming.

One of the family stories about me as a baby is that I would sit by the deep end of the pool in our Florida backyard and kick my legs in the water until I fell in. My mother would see me floating in the water by the seat of my rubber pants and would come out to rescue me. There’s a picture of me at this age reaching for a turtle by the pool and wearing just a plastic fireman’s helmet and a diaper. I won’t be recreating this photo as an adult for Instagram.

My dad, who served in the Navy in World War II, loved to swim. It was one of the times we as kids would get to “play” with our dad. He would throw us in the air, and we’d land in the water, swimming quickly back to him so he could do it again. We’d empty the change out of our pockets and stand by the deep end, then toss the coins into the water, watching where they settled. We would then dive for the coins, and gather them up on the edge of the pool to see who got the most. Sometimes as a family we would play Marco Polo, trying to answer “Polo” really quietly, our faces low to the water, so we wouldn’t get tagged by the flailing Marco whose eyes were closed. Being the smallest and youngest was both a difficulty and an asset. My siblings would sometimes use me as a human shield, but sometimes, being so small, I could wriggle away and swim below one of my sisters to get away from whoever was in the role of Marco.

We didn’t always have a pool, but I grew up swimming. If we stayed at a motel or hotel, we always made sure there was a pool. We often swam at the beach or in a lake when we vacationed. When we moved to Pennsylvania, we didn’t have our own pool, so we joined a nearby swim club. First we joined Ridgeview, which was just one large private pool on a farm surrounded by some dressing rooms. My mom would drop my sister and me off there for the afternoon in the summers, and we would swim for hours. A few years later, we switched to a membership at the much larger Willowood Swim Club. That was a bigger complex with three large pools and a “kiddie” pool, multiple life guards, and a shop selling hot food, sun screen, and my personal favorite–penny candy. The smell of Swedish Fish and Hawaiian Tropic dark tanning oil reminds me of Willowood Swim Club to this day. When I was in middle school, we got our own private pool again, and our days at the Swim Club were over.

When my husband and I traveled in Budapest two years ago, we discovered that one of the local treats is going to the large Roman-style spa. It contains many thermal pools of various temperatures, including an extremely popular outdoor thermal pool. There was a football match projected for the swimmers to watch, outdoor seating, and plenty of friendly Hungarians. It reminded me of my days at the swim club, a chance to relax with strangers which created a sense of community and fun, watching parents teaching their children to swim, older kids running off with their friends, and everyone gathering to eat as a family. I’ve never seen such a large, resort style pool complex in the US, not even in the hot springs parks.

After listening to the podcast, I researched and found that the swim club I used to enjoy was built in 1956, during the time when private swim clubs were becoming the trend rather than public pools, and that this was being done because people, primarily but not exclusively Dixiecrats, didn’t want government-built swimming pools if it meant they had to share them with black people. Privately owned clubs didn’t have to admit anyone they didn’t want to admit.

White people would rather destroy something they loved, a public good for their benefit, than share it with people they considered inferior, poor or dirty. Because black people were not given access to the benefits of the GI Bill that benefited so many whites returning from war, their second-class economic status was assured. This was further compounded by real estate practices like redlining that literally created “black” neighborhoods that whites would not willingly occupy due to lower property values; for black people, this sealed the multi-generational inability to climb out of poverty. Many whites didn’t realize that the system that had helped them had deliberately excluded and hurt black people. When confronted with the poverty and crime in black communities, rather than looking at the systems that created these issues, it was easier to blame black people for being lazy, unwilling to work to get ahead like white people (believed they) had done; black communities were seen as the product of broken and dysfunctional culture, not as communities deliberately deprived of the same opportunities white people took for granted.

Public pools are just a historical artifact that helps illustrate a common problem with privatization. Two other examples of public programs where conservatives push for privatization are education and health care; as with public pools, both have racist underpinnings. Being run by a private company, particularly for religious organizations, was a get-out-of-jail free card when it came to racism, and religously conservative groups understood this better than anyone.

One such school, Bob Jones University—a fundamentalist college in Greenville, South Carolina—was especially obdurate. The IRS had sent its first letter to Bob Jones University in November 1970 to ascertain whether or not it discriminated on the basis of race. The school responded defiantly: It did not admit African Americans.

Although Bob Jones Jr., the school’s founder, argued that racial segregation was mandated by the Bible, Falwell and Weyrich quickly sought to shift the grounds of the debate, framing their opposition in terms of religious freedom rather than in defense of racial segregation. For decades, evangelical leaders had boasted that because their educational institutions accepted no federal money (except for, of course, not having to pay taxes) the government could not tell them how to run their shops—whom to hire or not, whom to admit or reject. The Civil Rights Act, however, changed that calculus.

The roots of “religious freedom” are so completely tied to segregation and discrimination, that to me it’s an embarrassment for this term to appear on the front page of the Church’s website. It’s definitely something that needs to be re-examined. I realize that the Evangelicals love the term, doubtless why the Church is using it, but that should be a red flag, not encouragment. It’s not a placid term; it carries white privilege. Like performative patriotism and contemporaneous use of the American flag, it now implies white supremacy. The context of these symbols has changed and been highjacked by a white supremacist ideology.

President Nixon instituted civil rights legislation that would take away an organization’s tax exempt status if they discriminated on the basis of race, which forced some Evangelical colleges to put on a show of admitting black students, but the racist nature of the culture made it impossible to keep a plausible black student body that would convince the IRS they weren’t discriminating (which they absolutely were). Fears of miscegenation, something Mormon youth Sunday School lessons still cautioned against in 2010 (which not only surprised me but was devastating in its effects on my Sunday School students when they saw it in the manuals [1]), led to Bob Jones University admitting married black students only, so that there would be no “mixing of the races,” which they considered a religious imperative and their right under the guise of “religious freedom.” The university’s tax exempt status was rescinded in 1976, a year prior to Jimmy Carter’s presidency, although Evangelicals chose to blame liberals for their loss of status, knowing full well it didn’t happen under Carter. For political Evangelicals, the loss of tax exempt status for Bob Jones U was the final straw, galvanizing them to fight against what they saw as liberal encroachment on their so-called religious freedom. Protip: Nixon wasn’t liberal.

If you aren’t already hearing the echos of that horrifying story, looking back at the Mormon equivalent of this story about private religious education sounds very similar, but with some nuanced differences. In the late 1960s, BYU began to feel pressure from within their student body (which they didn’t so much care about) as well as students at other universities through the athletic programs of those schools. In 1970, the BSU (Black Student Union) at UW (University of Washington) demanded that their school refuse to compete in any sporting events against BYU, and also demanded that their university issue a statement decrying the Mormon Church’s racist doctrine and white supremacy. This was eight years before the priesthood ban was lifted, and the BSU members, who were not LDS, understood the ramifications of then-Mormon doctrine very clearly. Their protest was in the wake of a highly publicized incident when the University of Wyoming’s team protested BYU in 1969.

BYU’s record of racism and discrimination did not become national news until the fall of 1969 when 14 black football players at Wyoming were suspended from the football team for planning to protest against BYU. The University of Wyoming’s successful football team had 14 black players recruited from around the nation. Their coach, Lloyd Eaton, was known as a disciplinarian and had a strict policy against his students protesting. On October 15, 1969, three days before a game with BYU, the Black Student Alliance at the University of Wyoming delivered a letter to the university’s administration. The letter discussed the racial policies of the LDS Church and BYU and suggested that students and players protest in the upcoming game. The 14 blacks on the team met and, while unsure of the tactics they would use, decided to protest the LDS Church’s doctrine.4 

The specific issue that the athletes were protesting was a Mormon Church policy that prohibited blacks from joining the priesthood. In the Mormon Church the priesthood was not a professional order and all males entered the priesthood at age 12. Without being allowed into the priesthood blacks, could not marry in the temple, hold important leadership positions in the church, or enter the highest level of heaven. In short, the Mormon doctrine viewed blacks as spiritually inferior.5 After tentatively deciding to protest, the Wyoming football players broached the matter with their coach. Eaton immediately railed the blacks for even considering a protest, revoked their scholarships and dismissed them from the team. Since Wyoming was a nationally ranked team, film crews from the three networks descended upon Laramie to cover the administrative, faculty, and student meetings that followed the dismissals.6

In both cases, Evangelical leaders and Mormon leaders (and University decision makers) pled religious freedom. Black Student Unions disagreed, pointing out that all white organizations, religious or not, hid behind their institutions to bar blacks from equal participation. [2] In other words, “religious freedom” was often just a screen to hide institutions from accountability on religious grounds that acted as a panacea for any type of discrimination the institution wanted to do.

Was I, as a child, complicit in upholding racism by being in a family with a membership in a swim club or by owning a personal swimming pool? I was definitely benefiting from it, even if I didn’t realize its roots. Was I complicit in upholding racism because I got my degree at BYU, well after the priesthood ban was lifted and without being aware of the racist practices of the 1940s through the 1970s?

These are the wrong questions. My intentions are mostly irrelevant when it comes to anti-racism. We were all born into a racist world, one built with systematic racism. Organizations have inertia when it comes to progress, and privatization gives cover for even slower progress (or worse–regression). I’m glad to see that the Church has now included language in the handbook that condemns racism, but the problem is that it only addresses the racism of individuals, not the racist roots of institutions like BYU, the Church, educational systems, healthcare, and creating equal opportunity for people, regardless of color. Calls for individuals to “stop being racist” will do almost nothing to eliminate racist outcomes or the experiences of people of color.

Sure, if I go around like Archie Bunker (or Donald Trump, his modern-day equivalent), I’m being sinful on a personal level by treating a group of people as inferior, but, on the other hand, forcing people to discuss and deal with people who are extreme can open dialogue. Whether you or I are personally racist or not doesn’t change the fact that we live in a society more willing to throw away the public good rather than share it with people from other races and different socio-economic levels. It also matters that racists generally don’t think they are racist. Here’s an illustration from Archie Bunker’s character in All in the Family.

“I ain’t no bigot. I’m the first guy to say, ‘It ain’t your fault that youse are colored.'”

— Archie BunkerAll in the FamilySeason 2Edith Writes a Song

Bigotry is only invisible to the bigot.

Anti-socialism, like religious freedom, is ultimately a screen that hides bigotry and elitism. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, Church leaders were mostly silent, not wanting to laud the man whose efforts they had opposed so unabashedly. Rather than claiming to be against civil rights for black people, the objection was voiced that King was a communist, someone trying to get something for nothing at the expense of those (white people) who had worked hard to get it. [3] With the benefit of hindsight, this argument is clearly one we’re hearing resurfacing with vigor among the GOP today: 1) poor people are lazy and handouts are bad, 2) there’s no systemic racism, 3) government solutions for all are bad as they hurt the deserving whites, 4) private organizations are better run, 5) religious organizations should be exempt from anti-discrimination rules, 6) corporations are people, my friend. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s telling that although communism as a system of government fell (China’s form of communism is very capitalist, and nothing like the Cold War threat we quaked about Reagan’s America), a large group of Americans can’t shut up about their fear that any attempt at governing is going to lead us straight into Communism.

That’s a fear with racist roots.

  • Did you have a swimming pool growing up or belong to a swim club? Were you aware of the racist roots of private pools and swim clubs in the US?
  • Do you find the term “religious freedom” as used by conservative churches troubling? Why or why not?
  • Do you see anti-socialism as a screen for racism? Why or why not?


[1] In case the Church is wondering why we are losing so many young people, the calls are coming from inside the house.

[2] It’s no coincidence that the current cries for “religious freedom” continue to be the freedom to discriminate against classes of people, currently LGBTQ people and women.

[3] The best analogy I’ve heard to explain white privilege is that it’s like playing a video game, but white people get to play it on Level 1 while people of color (and women, often) have to play it at a higher difficulty level to win. White people feel they “earned” their wins, but are often unaware that they were playing an easier game all along. Equality is making sure we are all playing on roughly the same difficulty level.